JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Saving Mr. Banks and building Mr. Brand:
the Walt Disney Company in the era of
corporate personhood

by Mike Budd

This essay is in two parts. Part I is a visual essay closely analyzing key elements of the narrative, style, and ideology of Saving Mr. Banks. The images and captions in the visual essay provide illustration and further evidence for many of the larger arguments in the text in Part II. Part II critically analyzes selected aspects of the political economy, culture and history of the Walt Disney Company, and how these aspects and Saving Mr. Banks are mutually illuminating. Either part of the essay can be read first.[1][open endnotes in new window]

Part one: a visual essay

1. The opening credit sequence of Saving Mr. Banks, with the camera seeming to float through the sky and clouds, directly evokes a similar credit sequence in Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964). There the camera also seemed to float through the clouds to discover the famous nanny in the skies above London. Viewers will more likely recognize the soundtrack throughout the credits, a wistful piano version of the signature song from the Disney film, “Chim Chim Cher-ee.”

The release of Saving Mr. Banks is timed to promote the 50th Anniversary DVD/Blu-Ray of Mary Poppins and related Disney products as well as the image of the company and its eponymous founder. Thus the film will miss few opportunities to sell as well as narrate, attempting to activate the nostalgia that many viewers have for the earlier film and the Disney folks who produced it. More systematically than perhaps any other multinational corporation, the Walt Disney Company designs its commodities and services as ads for other Disney products, thus creating a relatively closed, internally referential corporate discourse that tends to exclude non-Disney culture where possible.

2. A few seconds later, the apparently continuous moving shot passes these tall palm trees, with a title identifying “Maryborough, Australia, 1906.” This is a narrative and stylistic hook, since a bit later in the film the adult Helen Goff, now renamed P.L. Travers, will encounter similar palm trees during a limousine ride through 1961 Los Angeles on her journey to discuss the script of Mary Poppins with Walt Disney and his writers.

The film motivates (justifies, explains) all the flashbacks as Travers’ memories, prompted by the palm trees and other reminders in her southern California experience of another journey she didn’t want to make. Flashbacks show her move in 1906 from the relatively lush Maryborough to parched rural Allora, Australia, after her father, Travers Goff, was fired from his job at a bank.

3. As the crane shot continues its descent to reveal this Maryborough garden, it catches the weathervane turning from west to east as the voice of Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) speaks intimately in voice over:

“Wind’s from the east, mist coming in, like something is brewing, about to begin. Can’t put my finger on what lies in store, but I feel what’s to happen all happened before.”

Although there is no historical evidence to suggest that Goff got this verse from her father, the film here clearly implies that she did. This Disney film will repeatedly suggest that Disney is the author of Mary Poppins, and that Travers only contributed autobiographical elements.

4. The shot continues to descend and tilt down, now directly over the young Helen Goff, sitting in the garden with her eyes closed. The seemingly continuous moving shot from the clouds above to the child below establishes a reassuringly stable, apparent continuity of space and time for narrative purposes. The juxtaposition of sound and moving camera as it approaches the child below suggests that the father’s words are in the child’s mind, more insistently attributing Travers’ words to Disney (and its employees, the songwriting Sherman brothers).

As the camera cranes down closer to the figure of the child below, the image quickly dissolves to…

5. …an image of P.L. Travers in her London office in March 1961, matching both the action of the camera movement and the pose of the meditating figure at the center of both compositions. The camera comes to rest to frame an eye-level medium shot of Travers as she opens her eyes and the 1961 narrative begins. The matches on camera movement, gesture and composition in moving almost seamlessly from 1906 to 1961 imply the child, statically unchanged, resides in the woman. The film will build up this implication through repetition into causality. Seemingly the child’s trauma overtakes and determines the woman’s life before Walt Disney intervenes to save her.

This complicated and expensive opening sequence thus presents a great deal of narrative and ideological information in its economical orchestration of moving image and sound, setting up the film’s argument and beginning to sell Disney’s version of Mary Poppins. It also establishes the diegetic (story) spaces within which the parallel narratives will take place. The continuity editing style within the classical narrative system thus orients viewers in space and time.

6. The first scene establishes the conflict within the protagonist, P.L. Travers, over whether or not to sell the rights to her beloved Mary Poppins (“She’s family, you know”) to Walt Disney. This shot and surrounding scene are lit and composed to focus attention on the performer’s face and gestures in order to promote empathy and identification so that viewers will “naturally” confuse characters with real people.

It is a familiar editing pattern of establishing, then analyzing space in closer shots like this, then re-establishing, then again breaking down the space, all to follow an invisible but omnipresent narrating agent. Thus the breaks between shots become continuities between parts of a seamless story. The shot and scene ends with Travers saying to her agent, “I want to keep my house.” Cut to…

7. …the first flashback, returning to the young Helen in the garden (above) in 1906 Australia, now building a miniature house of sticks and leaves. Her cherubic face in close-up contrasts with the worried expression on her adult face in the previous shot. As viewers learn that the little girl is the youthful Travers, they may also begin to comprehend the beginnings of a pattern in which the adult’s psychological state motivates the flashback.

As in other classical narrative films, viewers are invited to follow a trail of questions and clues, beginning with the enigmatic title: Who is Mr. Banks and why does he need to be saved? If viewers remember Mr. Banks as a character from Disney’s Mary Poppins, why save Mr. Banks and not Mrs. Banks or the children? And by now, only a few minutes into the film’s exposition, viewers are invited to understand that the flashback’s motivation (justification, explanation) is something about the character’s psychology.

 

But what? Does the pointed cut to the child building a playhouse directly after the adult character’s expression of concern for her house indicate causation? Is the adult’s action motivated by some yet-undisclosed childhood event? Classical narrative and continuity editing will lead viewers to preliminary answers and also more questions, gradually leading down a path of narrative mini-problems and solutions, delays and advances, through a pre-established cause-and-effect line.

8. In the next scene, Travers is on a plane to Los Angeles, and the character is constructed partly through Emma Thompson’s performance of “her” snobbery and irritation at having to travel to the Disney studio. As she falls asleep in the plane, the narrative returns…

9. …to another flashback, to another journey she disliked, with her family from Maryborough to Allora. By motivating the flashback once again as Travers’ memory (or dream), and through her similar attitude to both journeys, this second return to the past draws on and contributes to viewers’ commonsense pattern recognition, popular psychology and previous experience of classical narrative films and television.

Social, historical, and natural determination will take a back seat to psychological, private and personal explanations for how the world works, contributing to the naturalization of such privatized understandings.

In addition to developing the beginnings of a simple psychology for the protagonist, this flashback picks up the 1906 narrative soon after the previous flashback ended (as Helen left the garden with her father), thus following the convention of a series of flashbacks motivated by character psychology which will form a chronological and coherent narrative about the past (1906), organized to gradually reveal the reasons for the character behavior in the chronological narrative in the present (1961).

In this shot, the Disney version of the Goff family visually articulates the family conflict. On the train to Allora travelling through the countryside, young Helen stands on the rear platform looking longingly back toward where they’ve left. From frame left Helen’s mother glares across the frame toward her father in frame right as he takes a swig from a bottle, thus establishing his alcoholism.

 

10. On her arrival at the Beverly Hills Hilton, Travers finds her room filled with welcoming Disney stuffed animals, including Mickey Mouse. But she is most upset by the pears in the fruit basket, grabs them, rushes to the sliding glass doors and throws them into the swimming pool. Why pears?

Another small narrative puzzle and hook to draw us further into the diegetic world, creating conditions for empathizing with characters as if they were real people.

11. In contrast to her own uptight unhappiness, Travers first encounters Walt Disney when she sees his television image, beaming with joy, in her hotel room as he hosts his weekly anthology program, which is also a commercial for Disneyland and other Disney products. A familiar Disney pastiche of modes and styles combines nonfiction, fantasy and animation.

Tom Hanks blends his trustworthy star persona with Walt Disney’s avuncular image, holding his arms out in welcome to television viewers, with Oscars and other awards providing background and Tinkerbelle levitating him with her magic pixie dust.

12. The next day Travers meets the “real” Walt Disney in person in his office. He is introduced in a shot nearly identical in composition to his televised image, as if visually to reassure viewers that the public and private Disney are the same. In fact, historians have documented how Disney constructed and played a public “Walt Disney” at considerable odds with his private actions as boss and businessman. But these two shots and scenes, and the film in general, minimize the distance between the public and private Disney. For example, in a momentary deviation from the classical narrative conception of moving image as invisible narrating guest, it is as if viewers and the character of Travers had been invited into Walt’s office as the nonfiction television camera appeared to have been the night before. On television Disney addresses the audience directly, looking directly into the camera, but this is a classical narrative scene in indirect address, with the camera as invisible guest. However, here Disney/Hanks looks almost directly into the camera at the opening of the scene, as the image composition implicitly imitates the television image in the previous scene. The rest of this scene proceeds in standard classical narrative style.

13. In the continuity editing style that seems to stabilize space within the classical narrative system, one of the key conventions is the 180 degree rule. An invisible line is drawn between the major figures in the scene, and the camera usually stays on one side of this line. This insures some common background space from shot to shot, allowing viewers to quickly orient themselves and thus focus their attention on the characters. As analytic editing and matches on action smoothly take viewers closer and closer to the characters, the style invites them to see the film as the continuous actions and emotions of the characters rather than as a discontinuous series of shots (and sounds).

 

One of the first shots in the scene, shown previously, sets Walt Disney against the wall of his public awards. Then, as he and P.L. Travers converse a bit later in the scene, this shot shows them against a wall apparently adjoining the background of the previous shot. But whereas the previous office shot imitated the public, television image of Disney, this more private shot frames a drawing of Disney’s daughter Diane between him and Travers. Disney explains that he wants to make Mary Poppins because he promised his daughters he would do so, and a father never breaks a promise to his children, right? He asks Travers if she has a family, and she uncharacteristically stumbles with her answer, symptomatically beginning to reveal the Disney version of their contrasting family experiences that will become central to the film’s narrative.

Thus the overlapping background space in this scene not only stabilizes the narrative space through the 180 degree rule, but it also enables a continuous visual commentary on the foreground action. Viewers can see how literally close the private Disney (family picture) is to the public Disney (Oscars and other awards), and how within the Disney universe, Walt’s motives begin with family. The film’s mise-en-scene sometimes resembles an illustrated promotional lecture, with the background visually supporting the foreground narrative conversation and action.

14. Emma Thompson vividly incarnates the starchy and imperious P.L. Travers, in her performance often bringing nuance and complex shadings missing elsewhere in the film.

Here the character looks down her nose in mixed pity and wonder at the benighted U.S. soul who imagines that Dick van Dyke, cast as Bert the chimney sweep in Disney’s Mary Poppins, might be like Olivier or Gielgud, “one of the greats.”

15. In an overhead shot of her that evening in bed, Travers/Thompson shows more vulnerability, developing and deepening the narrative pattern of flashbacks triggered by the day’s discussion of the script. Flashbacks will thus be revealed as revelatory of painful episodes from her childhood. The film’s style and narrative takes viewers more and more deeply into the character’s imaginary subjectivity. As she murmurs “Responstible,” another narrative hook, motif or symptom, there is a quick dissolve into….

16. …Travers’ memory image in this overhead shot of the young Helen Goff. The shot visually matches or rhymes with the similar descending camera movement and composition in the opening sequence, designed to invite alert viewers to compare this brown and arid landscape unfavorably with the green garden landscape in that opening sequence.

The family’s declining fortunes can be economically measured through this comparison. Style and technique both support narrative (establishing a new scene) and develop thematic meaning (the made-up word “responstible” triggers her memory, but why?).

17. Whereas the camera movement in the opening ends with a cut to the adult Travers in her London home, then later returns to the young Helen Goff making her miniature house of sticks and leaves, here the descending camera movement is completed, with Helen making another house in this inhospitable location. And again her father approaches, this time on the family’s white horse, enchanting her once more with his fanciful but irrespons(t)ible tales.

18. Like many contemporary Hollywood films appropriating techniques associated with the international art cinema, the film’s time in this sequence moves fluidly between past and present. A flashback that began with Travers in bed at night ends with this 1961 image of the tall palm trees that remind her of Australia, an image that then…

19. …in a cut is marked retroactively, and somewhat ambiguously, as Travers’ point of view out the limousine window. The character’s narrative arc also begins its movement in Thompson’s performance as Travers starts privately to soften.
20. The culmination of this sequence is a peak moment in the young Helen’s idolizing her father. A romance, with father and daughter riding the white horse in slow motion and haloing light with vaguely perverse sexual overtones, establishes the idealized memory of Travers Goff, namesake of P.L. Travers, which must be saved through the figure of Mr. Banks. 21. As Travers’ memories of her father reach a romantic peak in the past, she confronts Walt Disney in the present with her most arbitrary demand, that there be no red in the film. This seems to signal that her memories increasingly influence her present actions.

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